Songwriter Interviews

Nina Persson of The Cardigans

by Amanda Flinner

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After more than twenty years of performing, Nina Persson should be used to the spotlight. She started out as the lead singer for the pop/rock group the Cardigans - one of the hottest Swedish imports of the '90s - with international hit singles like "Lovefool," "Erase/Rewind" and "My Favourite Game."

During a hiatus from the band in 2001, Nina brought her ethereal vocals and poignant lyrics to the side project A Camp with her husband Nathan Larson (novelist, film composer and former Shudder to Think guitarist) and Niclas Frisk, founder of the Swedish pop group Atomic Swing. In all this time, she never released an album under her own name - until now. Animal Heart, released in the US on February 11 via The End Records, marks her first solo effort.

In this interview, she gives us the scoop on her new album, her songwriting process and the future of the Cardigans.
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): Earlier, I was listening to your interview with the Tom Dunne Show and you said you originally envisioned Animal Heart as a beautiful, melancholy kind of album. Can you talk about how that changed and what inspired the album?

Nina Persson: Yeah. I just grasped at what I thought I'd do the best. I just love really beautiful songs and beautiful melodies and melancholy, so that's what I proposed I'd do. But then we started to write the song and it had just a little more action than what we thought - even some beats and some energy.

It was really fun because I got surprised by it. We started at that end and then we just followed a trail of what we were heavily doing. You shouldn't always just try to do what you're comfortable with.

Songfacts: And you mentioned you were listening to a lot of '70s and '80s pop at the time.

Nina: Yeah. That's what I felt like I hadn't really examined very much. And it is really very strong in my roots, because I grew up listening to that music - I consumed a lot of what was on the radio.

And I grew up in the '80s, so it was really fun. I really like a lot of it still and it held a sentimentality for me for the time when I grew up.

Eric D. Johnson is a Chicago-born singer/songwriter who is known for being the frontman for the folk rock band Fruit Bats and a former keyboardist and backing vocalist for The Shins. Before acting as co-producer and co-writer for the Animal Heart album, Johnson teamed with Nathan Larson to score the comedy-drama Our Idiot Brother in 2011, which featured Nina singing on "Cowboys and Hobos" for the soundtrack.
Songfacts: There were a few things that you had never heard, like Hall & Oates and some other people you just never listened to before.

Nina: I'd heard it, but I wasn't really drawn to it. I just sort of just dismissed it as cheesy or whatever. But very much thanks to Eric, who I wrote with and I worked with, he has a very generous relationship to music. We just listened to all kinds of stuff, and I got excited and I just found inspiration in all these places. Every time can leave a prejudice, it's a big relief. The only thing music needs to be is good.

Songfacts: To me, "Animal Heart," it almost had a little bit of a Pat Benatar feel.

Nina: Oh, wow. That's great. I like that.

Songfacts: Along with "Animal Heart," the other track titles all have that primitive instincts theme throughout. Is that something that you like to explore?

Nina: Yeah. I think it's very fascinating, because the human drive can really turn the most social kind of life and cultivate it and turn it into an animal [laughs]. I think that's really interesting. That's purely myself very much.

So that's an endless source of inspiration. We struggle with this too, you know - there are a lot of things we can control these days, so when there are little things that we cannot it becomes very frustrating.

Songfacts: Over the years we've seen you do pop, rock, and country. For fans of the Cardigans and A Camp, will this album introduce another facet or a combination of all three?

Nina: I guess it is pretty much a combination of all three. I feel like I haven't made that big a leap in any direction. It's more a matter of introducing new sound environments and a new approach and then just, maybe not refining, but moving on with what you've got. I think that you still hear it all in there. It's just a new version of songs by the same person.

Songfacts: Did you feel pressure at all to set yourself apart from the Cardigans or even from A Camp?

Nina: No. And I'm not so bothered by these things anymore. Maybe I certainly have been in different periods, because I felt it was frustrating to always be second-guessed, and try to feel comfortable with what you've done and having people say things about you, what you're doing and what you're going to do. But now it doesn't bother me and I'm more at terms with my situation. I've gotten so much from my past and everything I've done that's led us to where we are.

I'm also very intertwined with my past. I just did a Cardigans tour a month ago, so it's nothing I left behind - it's all in me and all still here. So it's not a frustration for me anymore. Actually, I have that past and I think it's okay to be many things, and I guess I'm also starting to feel like people have understood now.

Songfacts: It was 2001 when you released your first A Camp album. Would that have been hard if you would have released that under your own name at the time? Do you feel like you're just at a better place now to be able to do that?

Nina: Yeah. At this time I suddenly didn't feel so scared of it anymore, and I was back then. It just didn't feel comfortable at all, so I'm glad I didn't, because there were forces that suggested that I do that, but I just felt that it wasn't me, then. I'd grown up in a band and I liked that and I felt comfortable there. I was real scared of the concept of a solo excursion. It's something directly narcissistic and I had all kinds of thoughts about it.

Songfacts: Were all the songs written specifically for this album?

Nina: Yes. They were. And that's how I always do it. I'm not real productive between projects. I start writing and I get ideas when I sort of know the format it's going to be in.

Songfacts: I know your husband was involved with producing this album, but was he involved in the songwriting and then in playing on the songs, too?

Nina: Yeah, he was involved with it all, actually. The whole project has been with him and Eric Johnson. But it was a favor to do everything, actually, from the writing to the producing. There are hardly any other people than us playing instruments on the record. So it's very much like a trinity.

Songfacts: Is there any particular song that is your baby, your favorite one?

Nina: Well, they keep changing, actually. For the longest time it was a song called "Clip Your Wings," and I still really like that one, but lately I've been really excited about the song called "The Grand Destruction Game" that I've been rehearsing with my band. That one's just so much fun to play because it has like a narrative aspect of it that's fun.

The Cardigans line-up has remained consistent since the group first formed as teenagers in 1992. Along with Nina as lead singer there's guitarist Peter Svensson, bassist Magnus Sveningsson, drummer Bengt Lagerberg and keyboardist Lars-Olof Johansson. Nina took over as primary lyricist for the band's last two albums, Long Gone Before Daylight (2003) and Super Extra Gravity (2005).
Songfacts: Can you talk about your approach to songwriting and if it's changed writing solo versus writing for a group?

Nina: Well, it's different. It doesn't differ very much from writing for A Camp, because that we did the same way pretty much, three of us, or me and somebody else, sitting and playing and just sort of brainstorming and playing our way to the result. With the Cardigans it's different because there's more structure. Peter, the guitar player, would give me the songs, and then we discuss it. That's when I start to write lyrics. That's pretty much always how it works. The way we're working now is very similar to the way I've been working outside the Cardigans.

Songfacts: So because you specifically write for the album you're working on, it's never like you come up with a song where you think, "This would make a good Cardigans song," because you're not writing in between, so you have a very specific idea of what you want.

Nina: When I try to make a record, that's when I start building the world or getting ideas or figuring out the cornerstones of the project. I feel like they are different, they are different music. To me, it is. So it does make a difference really what zone I'm in.

Songfacts: Can you sit down and write like a 9-5 deal, or do you have to go when inspiration hits you?

Nina: Well, neither now, actually, because I have a kid now, so my life just has to be so much more structured than before, than pre-baby. But now when he goes to school is the time that I can work, so it's much more like, "Okay, I have the time now, so I guess you'd better come over."

Songfacts: Some of your darker songs have come out of your happier times. It's interesting to me that you have a fulfilled life with your husband and your son, but at the same time, in "Dreaming of Houses" you sing, "Why did you leave me? Didn't you need me?" How do you sing about that so convincingly?

Nina: I feel totally fine about saying that because I'm married, I love my husband. I'm very fortunate and happy in a lot of ways, but you don't cease as a human, as a person, just because you get these institutions in your life. I feel like I can really tune into the mindset of being a mom and all these things. It's all still there. It's just that I've teamed up to become this person along the ride.

Songfacts: It's interesting that your husband is helping you write those songs.

Nina: Yeah. A lot of people say that and we always laugh about it. I guess that's weird to some people, but it's nothing strange for us. We've always found that ever since we met.

The first song we wrote together was called "What The Hell Are You Crying For?" So that's just a period where we had an interest in writing about that.

That's also what is interesting to write about. Fulfillment and being content and happiness are hard and are sort of unnecessary to write about, because when it's there, it's just fucking there and it's great. You don't need to comment on it hardly.

Songfacts: And people need someone to relate to their pain more than their happiness.

Nina: Yeah. Exactly. That's where we need music and art in general. That's how I consume it, anyway. I'm drawn to any art or anything that fills my holes and answers my questions. Touch me in certain spaces and explain something to me. Happiness is just happiness and being content is just a big sort of yes. And that's great when it comes.

Songfacts: Do you feel like sometimes the loneliness that comes through is from being away from home? You've been in New York for a long time, but kind of trapped between Sweden and New York?

Nina: Maybe that had something to do with it, but I've lived in New York for a long time. I moved here old enough to be very formed by being Swedish, language-wise and culturally and every single way - I can connect with the issues of being an immigrant and all that.

It's culture change, so I'm sure that's part of it, too. It's certainly part of a feeling I have - I'm often just feeling like I'm in the wrong place. But I don't really have a right place ever. I don't know if people do.

Language-wise, I speak pretty good English. I read in English. But there's still something about speaking your mother tongue that has a lot to do with your identity. I still feel relieved when I get to hang out and talk to people in Swedish, because I feel like there's just a little bit more meaning in the way I speak in Swedish.

Songfacts: Have you ever considered doing an album all in Swedish?

Nina: I never have until recently when I suddenly started feeling a little curious about it because a Swedish friend of mine who's also a singer/songwriter, she had just felt the same thing. She also writes in plain English. We just talked about how there must be so much more for us to write in Swedish, because in Swedish the language is very sharp and direct and very loaded. It has more words, I feel like. So I get really excited about trying to make music in Swedish and just see what comes out, since it is the language that I grew up with.

Songfacts: That would be interesting. It would be a challenge, because you're so accustomed to writing in English.

Nina: Yeah. And I also have never listened that much to the music in Swedish, so I don't have a very wide reference, but that should make it even more interesting. In that respect, I would be a bit of an outsider.

Songfacts: Because you are a songwriter, do you tend to focus on lyrics when you listen to songs?

Nina: I always pay attention to songs, but I don't always focus on the lyrics, because sometimes when I listen to songs that I listen to a lot of times, I can be struck by the feeling: "Wait, I never really felt what it's about."

Some songs, the words just have a function of being sounds and vowels, and sounding good, which I think is totally fine. And then you start listening to it and it opens up something else.

Songfacts: Are there any artists in particular who inspire you lyrically?

Nina: Oh, yeah. I'm a huge Neil Young fan and I'm inspired by his lyric writing, because he can be so very subtle and vague, and still he really hits you where you feel like he's talking to you and about you. I think that's great, and I think that's a great element in writing for music: you need to leave space for interpretation and suggest things in order for it to become a listener's very own song. Let the listener fill in the gaps.

Alice Munro is renowned for her character-driven short stories most often set in her native southwestern Ontario. Her 1968 debut Dance of the Happy Shades won the coveted Governor General's Award for Fiction and was followed by thirteen more short story collections, including Dear Life in 2012.

In 2013, she became the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (although Canadian-born Saul Bellow won in 1976, he was an official US citizen at the time) and earned the title "Master of the Contemporary Short Story."
Then recently I read Alice Munro, the writer, and I was really struck by her. Short stories is pretty much the only thing she does. I was really amazed at how potent her writing is, even if you read just five sentences. She is a bit from the old world.

That's really a skill which also is something you try to do in a song - to take the story full circle within the song. That's one of the struggles, because it's a short time, you know, four minutes, three-and-a-half minutes. You want to leave room for interpretation, but you want to finish your own thought a little bit.

Songfacts: You want people to be able to connect with your story, too.

Nina: Yeah, exactly. And it's also a format thing a little bit. A song is just a good feeling in any writing. It's a good feeling when you feel like, "Oh, yeah, I'm back at the headline."

Songfacts: When it all ties together.

Nina: Yeah.

Songfacts: For the A Camp album Colonia, you said you imagined yourself as David Bowie when you put down the vocals. Did you fantasize about anyone for this album at all?

Nina: I would say it was inspired by Eric, who I wrote with. He's an amazing singer. He's a funky, soulful singer. I was inspired by him. I wanted to be him. [laughs]

Songfacts: Has touring with the Cardigans stirred up any feelings about recording new material with them?

Nina: Yeah, it has, actually. We also played together all last summer. We had been in a bit of a rut, just not knowing what to do with the band, really. But it was suddenly so fun and we all just loved the music again and enjoyed each other and we sort of fell back in love. So we have started to talk about it, and it's a fun thing to discuss. It is a hell of a project to start though, because we need to figure out the logistics up here and there in Sweden. One guy spends a lot of time in Los Angeles, and everybody has tons of kids and other jobs and stuff. We just have to figure things out.

But it would be fun. Two other guys in the Cardigans [Lagerberg and Johansson] have a great band called Brothers of End that I really love. So I've been singing with them a little bit, which has been really fun. We've been working together on other music, and it's just great. There's something really valuable about knowing each other so well and having a past and all that.

I actually think it would be really fun to make a new record. It's a scary project, though, because we're not at the same level as the last time we did a record and we wouldn't be so instantaneously successful again. It's usually been a pretty big trick to do a record, and you need to devote a lot of time to everything that comes after releasing a Cardigans record.

Songfacts: Well, I know a lot of the fans are clamoring for one. On cardigans.com, you see people asking, "When's there going to be a new album?"

Nina: Yeah. And we get a lot of "Come to South America!" I know. And that has bothered me in some periods. I felt like, I'm producing music like nobody's business. Isn't that enough?

But I understand it. I really appreciate the Cardigans for my own life and also playing the songs together, because they're fucking good. I can admit that now and I can see it. It's not that tender to me anymore.

February 4, 2014
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Comments: 1

  • Vaughn from Wilmington, NcGreat interview. Nina is as lovely as ever!
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